ROME—Theresa Jordan, a thirtysomething living in Detroit, wore white and blushed like a bride when she walked down the aisle of the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament last summer.
But there was no groom waiting at the altar. Jordan and two other women in white wedding dresses were marrying Jesus Christ, in a symbolic ritual that dates back to the 12th century, giving to the Lord what the officiating bishop referred to as “the most precious gift they have” by vowing to remain virgins until their death.
The rules of engagement for becoming a “consecrated virgin” in the eyes of the Catholic Church used to be fairly simple: Women had to be virgins, had to be unmarried, and had to remain chaste. But according to Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago, the latest teaching document released under Pope Francis, women now no longer have to be virgins. In Section 88 of the lengthy document, the church states that while preferred, virginity is no longer a requirement to be, well, a virgin.
“In this context it should be kept in mind that the call to give witness to the church’s virginal, spousal, and fruitful love for Christ is not reducible to the symbol of physical integrity. Thus to have kept her body in perfect continence or to have practiced the virtue of chastity in an exemplary way, while of great importance with regard to the discernment, are not essential prerequisites in the absence of which admittance to consecration is not possible.”
What is a consecrated virgin? They’re women who live and work in secular society (unlike nuns, who commit themselves to the church through their religious vocations and lifestyle choices) and many are employed in sectors outside the church. Nuns, who do not have to be virgins but must remain celibate, must dedicate their professional and personal lives to church work, often invoking the vow of charity. There are around 250 in the U.S. and about 5,000 around the world, according to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, which oversees the Order of Consecrated Virgins or Ordo Virginum. There are various reasons women choose to give their virginity to someone who cannot physically take it. Many, according to the American Association of Consecrated Virgins, or USACV, blend in easily in society and choose this path of spirituality in order to pursue professional careers or maintain more relatively normal lives than nuns enjoy.
“She does not wear a habit or veil, nor does she use the title ‘sister.’ according to the USACV. “While she may associate with other consecrated virgins for friendship and mutual encouragement, she lives her vocation individually. She provides completely for her own material needs, including medical care and retirement resources, through employment, pension, or other means. At no time is her diocese financially responsible for her. Not restricted to a particular apostolate, she is free to choose her own way of serving the church according to her natural and spiritual gifts.”
The one thing that sets the consecrated virgin apart from other religiously devout women is that she has maintained her virginity for her “bridegroom” Jesus Christ, as the relationship is defined in church teaching.
Unsurprisingly, the contradictory new rules that redefine what it is to be a virgin have angered many of the consecrated virgins who believe that physical virginity is the basis of being a virgin.
In a terse statement released (PDF) last week, the USACV called the Vatican’s new document “convoluted and confusing.”
“The long-awaited Instruction on the Ordo Virginum is deeply disappointing in its denial of integral virginity as the essential and natural foundation of the vocation to consecrated virginity,” the statement says. “It is shocking to hear from Mother Church that physical virginity may no longer be considered an essential prerequisite for consecration to a life of virginity. The entire tradition of the church has firmly upheld that a woman must have received the gift of virginity—that is, both material and formal (physical and spiritual)–in order to receive the consecration of Virgins.”
Conservative canon lawyer Edward Peters, writing in his blog In the Light of the Law, calls the instruction document a stunning assertion. “Simply stunning,” he says. “Under it, Mary Magdalene, extreme in her sins but outstanding in her repentance, seems eligible for consecration as a virgin. More practically, many, many women, less obvious in sexual sin and likely less perfect in repentance, are now eligible for consecration precisely as virgins.”
Peters and other conservatives argue that there is no way non-virgins could be consecrated as “Brides of Christ” and promise to give their virginity if they are no longer pure. “I know of no ecclesiastical document in history, until Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago, that directly and effectively denies that virginity is required for one’s consecration as a virgin,” he writes. “Even in the last few decades, where inquiries into the fact of virginity were dangerously diluted, no responsible ecclesiastical official or document that I know of ever denied that what is required in a woman here is virginity—not a wish for virginity, not a henceforth perpetual resolve for perfect continence, not sorrow over the loss of one’s virginity in a single one-night stand, however laudable all of those sentiments are, but virginity itself.”
The latest Vatican document will certainly add fuel to the fire conservative Catholics have been stoking since Francis was elected. A group of cardinals led by American Raymond Burke continues to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Francis’ papacy based on what they perceive as errors of judgment. Burke, who has been a keynote speaker at events held by the USACV, has not yet commented on the latest Francis fiasco. The group has asked for a retraction or clarification of the Vatican document.
While a contested instructional document on a tiny order in a massive church won’t likely have a major effect on Francis’s reputation outside conservative circles, its existence does mean the sacrifice made by the real virgins might have just have been in vain.